Phone-hacking scandal: James Murdoch insists he didn't mislead British lawmakers

/ Source: The Associated Press

He didn't see. He wasn't told. He didn't know.

Called back to Britain's Parliament after former News Corp. employees challenged his credibility, senior executive James Murdoch insisted he'd been kept in the dark about widespread phone hacking at his now-defunct News of the World tabloid, blaming two of his senior lieutenants for failing to warn him of the paper's culture of criminality.

"None of these things were mentioned to me," he told an often-skeptical House of Commons' media committee.

Over more than two-and-a-half hours of questioning, Murdoch stuck to that line.

"It was not shown to me," he said of an explosive email which implicated one of his top reporters in phone hacking.

"It didn't occur to me to probe further," he said when quizzed about the legal advice his subordinates had supplied him.

"It didn't seem necessary for me to ask for a copy," he said of a seven-page document warning of overwhelming evidence of illegal behavior at his company.

Speaking quickly and confidently, Murdoch laid the blame at the door of former News of the World Editor Colin Myler and former in-house lawyer Tom Crone, both of whom resigned soon after the scandal broke earlier this year. Over the past few months, the pair have challenged the credibility of their former boss, accusing the 38-year-old News Corp. executive of not telling the truth when he claimed they never told him about the incriminating email back in 2008.

Murdoch made one important concession to their version of events — acknowledging that he'd been briefed on the incriminating email back in 2008 — but insisted that its importance was kept from him.

"What never happened is Mr. Crone and Mr. Myler showing me the relevant evidence, explaining to me the relevant evidence — and its relevance — or talking about wider spread criminality," Murdoch said. "That simply did not happen."

In a statement, Crone attacked Murdoch's testimony, insisting that he hadn't misled lawmakers.

"At best, his evidence on the matter was disingenuous," he said of Murdoch's comments. He did not immediately return calls seeking further comment.

Myler's telephone number is unlisted, and a letter sent to him more than a month ago has gone unanswered.

Murdoch's solo performance was far less dramatic than the July 19 hearing at which his 80-year-old father Rupert Murdoch repeatedly banged the table to back his points. Although the navy-suited James Murdoch showed flashes of annoyance — occasionally starting his answers with "as I testified earlier" or "as I answered earlier" — he kept his cool, even when Labour lawmaker Tom Watson described him as a bumbling crime lord.

"You must be the first mafia boss in history who doesn't know he's at the head of a criminal enterprise," Watson said in what sounded like a carefully crafted sound bite.

Murdoch, stony-faced, dismissed the comment as inappropriate.

He struck an apologetic tone when questions steered him toward his company's failure to get to grips with the scandal. He said executives at the company had given assurances, and that the company "relied on those assurances for too long."

"I'm sorry for that," he said.

He also apologized for the use of a private investigator to tail the lawyers of phone hacking victims, calling the practice "appalling."

James Murdoch runs News Corp.'s European and Asian holdings and remains tipped to succeed his father at the helm of the global media conglomerate. Thursday's appearance was mandated by lawmakers investigating the industrial-scale espionage at the News of the World, the exposure of which has already forced the paper's closure and scuttled a multibillion pound (dollar) bid for full control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

More than a dozen journalists at News International, News Corp.'s British newspaper subsidiary, have been arrested, and several executives, including The Wall Street Journal's publisher, Les Hinton, have resigned.

Although the media committee's investigation isn't as serious as the ongoing police investigation — its recommendations are nonbinding — Murdoch still needed to put on a strong show. Investors have become increasingly restive as the scandal continues to spread, and analysts say Murdoch's position as heir apparent to his father's company is under threat.

Paul Connew, a media consultant and former tabloid editor, said he believed Murdoch had given a mixed performance.

"Polished to a certain extent, but again suffering from the amnesia factor," he said.

The media committee wouldn't be calling Myler or Crone back for more testimony, Chairman John Whittingdale told reporters after the hearing. He said the committee's lawmakers had already heard from the pair and would now be weighing whose version of events to believe.

"It is plain that the two accounts we've heard, one of them cannot be true," he said.

Connew warned that even if Murdoch's reputation isn't damaged by the report, he would not be home free. A judge-led inquiry into Britain's media could call him back to the U.K. for more questioning. And detectives could dredge up more damaging revelations.

Lawmakers suggested as much Thursday, with one asking whether Murdoch was aware of any phone hacking at The Sun, the News of the World's sister paper and currently Britain's biggest selling daily.

Murdoch refused to say, citing an ongoing investigation.

Asked whether he would close The Sun if evidence of phone hacking emerged there, he declined comment.

Separately, Scotland Yard chief Bernard Hogan-Howe announced Thursday that police were working their way through some 300 million emails from News International.

Some 120 officers and staff are investigating the phone hacking scandal. The force said it had contacted less than a third of the News of the World's nearly 6,000 potential victims.